** (2 stars) Hank's Oyster Bar
1624 Q St. NW (near 17th Street)
Open: for dinner Sunday and Monday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m.; for brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Tuesday. AE, MC, V. No reservations. Smoking at outdoor tables only. Limited wheelchair access. Metro: Dupont Circle. Valet parking Thursday through Saturday at dinner. Prices: dinner appetizers $6 to $14, entrees $11 to $19. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $50 per person.
Some neighborhoods have all the luck. To live in Penn Quarter in Washington -- home to such enticements as Jaleo, Minibar, Poste and Zaytinya -- is to have plenty of chances to dine very well. Similarly, within strolling distance of one another in Silver Spring beckon restaurants delivering a small world of choices, from contemporary American (Jackie's) to traditional Burmese (Mandalay) to Jamaican (Negril).
Other areas, despite large populations and healthy incomes, fare
less well. Bethesda offers more options than exist in Bill Gates's portfolio, but I can count its good returns on your restaurant-dollar investment on one hand. And, in Washington, the stretch of 17th Street near Dupont Circle serves, with few exceptions, a heapin' helpin' of mediocrity.
So no wonder the lines sometimes spill out the door at Hank's Oyster Bar. This fledgling seafood restaurant replaces the scruffy Trio Pizza & Subs and is headed by Jamie Leeds, the chef who made Logan Circle a better place to eat with 15 ria in the Washington Terrace Hotel. For 10 years, the Brooklyn native says, she has wanted to create a place of her own, but it took her until now to find just the right spot and just the right time to do her own thing.
Hank's, the chef says, is a nod to her late father, an avid fisherman. It's also "reminiscent of the places I love to go," she says, including the counter-only Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco and the pint-size Pearl Oyster Bar in New York, restaurants revered for their clean looks and sublime ingredients.
Having had the good fortune to eat in both those restaurants, I can tell you that Hank's has achieved just the right effect. The narrow room holds fewer than 70 seats, but its endless tin ceiling and long wooden floor make it feel bigger. A sense of tidiness prevails. Walls are warmed up by red brick or paint in shades of pistachio or copper, and by old photographs of Leeds's father fishing. Chalkboards tell you which oysters are being served that day (there are typically five or more varieties), and overhead fans hark back to a more languid era. When the weather allows, the front doors open to a small patio for al fresco dining. Passersby slow down as they approach the inviting scene.
"Can you believe it?" I overheard a former Trio customer say to his friends. "This place used to be a dump!"
Leeds's menu is concise and (surprise, surprise) heavily populated by ingredients from the ocean. Following the current fashion, it is also divided into "Small Plates" and "Large Plates" -- those would be appetizers and entrees -- and it throws a bone to carnivores with "Meat & Two." Carryovers from 15 ria, these entrees change with the day and include a choice of two side dishes. Monday means short ribs, and Thursday smothered pork chops, while Sunday is made cozier by citrus roast chicken. Wednesday's flatiron steak, while moist and cooked as requested, proved less than succulent, relying on a basil-brightened chimichurri sauce for its flavor. I filled up instead on my chosen accompaniments: lacy golden fried onions and chunky coleslaw.
But first, there are appetizers to think about. One that should be at the top of your to-do list is the popcorn shrimp and calamari. Lightly battered, the bite-size shrimp burst with juices, while the calamari are simultaneously tender and crisp. Charmingly, these nuggets of seafood arrive in a little tin pail. Take a cue from the restaurant's name and try the oysters. They come raw on the half shell, bedded on ice; or dipped in buttermilk, then floured and deftly fried; or as the star in a shot glass. The last version is clever and refreshing, a briny Kumomoto oyster topped off with bloody mary-like juice and a splash of sake. The kitchen also assembles a good Caesar salad -- be sure to splurge on the meaty white anchovies for $2 extra -- and whips up a delicate asparagus soup. And I'm a big fan of Leeds's crab cake. Rich, sweet and meaty, it sports a light coat of Japanese bread crumbs and comes with some coleslaw and house-made tartar sauce for dabbing.
When I close my eyes, I could be eating in another trim purveyor of fresh seafood, Johnny's Half Shell, on the other side of Dupont Circle. The unfussy food tends to highlight ingredients rather than the chef's ego. Thus, at Hank's, a special of perfectly cooked halibut is simply dressed with a tomato-lemon relish, and soft-shell crabs come with nothing more than a brush stroke or two of citrus butter. Sweet chunks of lobster and celery are bound with just a suggestion of mayonnaise, then slipped inside a pillowy bun, crisped from a moment on the griddle. That and the oyster po' boy make much better alternatives to the large but overcooked hamburger.
To round out a meal, there are close to a dozen vegetable dishes for $4 each. I'm partial to the soothing, crumb-topped macaroni and cheese; the garlicky wilted spinach (steakhouses take note); and those habit-forming onion rings. In contrast, red and golden beets taste like penance. They are cut too large and served too cold. And while the french fries are full of potato flavor, they are invariably served limp rather than crisp.
Hank's is sweet, but it isn't perfect. When the room is fully occupied, you realize how cramped it is. One night, my chair was repeatedly bumped, by servers and fellow diners alike, as they tried to make their way to tables. Leeds might consider removing a table or two up front. She also might think about increasing her portion sizes. Personally, I dislike titanic servings, but there's a lot of white space around some of the entrees here; you'll need to order a side dish or two if you don't want to leave hungry. And a full month after the opening, dessert was still not an option at Hank's. "The kitchen is too small," a server explained when she appeared with a check and complimentary chunks of German chocolate for everyone at the table.
Sweet as the thought is, I'd still prefer not having to move on to another restaurant to finish my meal. Hank's is the kind of place you want to linger in -- the kind of place that would make a father proud.
"Sunday Champagne Brunch," read the sign outside Bombay Garden in Fairfax on Father's Day. The announcement lured Jon Lang, his wife and their 1-year-old son into the Indian restaurant, where Lang spotted another sign advertising the Sunday buffet for $13.95. The Falls Church reader was understandably surprised, then, when he and his wife were charged $17.95 each. "I was informed that since it was Father's Day," Lang reported in an e-mail to me, "there was an extra charge of $4 per person." Yet "nowhere was this indicated on any menu," he complained. Owner Raj Kapoor subsequently explained to me that for holidays, the buffet is stocked with more dishes, for which he charges extra, but he also apologized for not making the higher price clear. "It was my mistake," Kapoor says. "It was a busy day." In the future, he promises, any deviation from the norm will not only be posted in the restaurant but mentioned when customers call for reservations. Sounds like a proactive game plan.
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